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The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights

Charles Blattberg

University of Montreal

January 20, 2009

Charles Blattberg, PATRIOTIC ELABORATIONS: ESSAYS IN PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY, Chapter 3, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009

With the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea of human rights came into its own on the world stage. More than anything, the Declaration was a response to the Holocaust, to both its perpetrators and the failure of the rest of the world adequately to come to the aid of its victims. Since that year, however, we have seen many more cases of mass murder. Think of China, Bali, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now Darfur. Of course one could always claim that such horrors would have been even more frequent if not for the Declaration. But I want to argue otherwise. For I believe that human rights have contributed to making mass murder more, rather than less, likely.

To be clear, my concern is specifically with the language of human rights, not the values it expresses, values which I certainly endorse. The problem with this language is that it is abstract. And the problem with abstraction is that it demotivates, it 'unplugs' us from the 'moral sources,' as Charles Taylor would call them, which empower us to act ethically. After showing why, I go on to describe how the rise of human rights has constituted an ironic tragedy of sorts for those philosophers who have attempted to lend it intellectual support. On the whole, they may be divided into two groups. One, led by cosmopolitans such as Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge, tries to interlock rights within systematic theories of justice, thus fixing the priorities between them. The other, led by value pluralists such as Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams, rejects such theories as infeasible and asserts that the best we can do when rights conflict is to negotiate. Yet both approaches, I argue, are counter-productive.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 19

Keywords: philosophy of human rights, moral motivation, monism, pluralism

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Date posted: January 21, 2009 ; Last revised: May 6, 2016

Suggested Citation

Blattberg, Charles, The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights (January 20, 2009). Charles Blattberg, PATRIOTIC ELABORATIONS: ESSAYS IN PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY, Chapter 3, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1330693

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Charles Blattberg (Contact Author)
University of Montreal ( email )
C.P. 6128 succursale Centre-ville
Montreal, Quebec H3C 3J7
514-343-6111ex.40898 (Phone)
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